A Half-Black Japanese Beauty Queen Is Raising Eyebrows—But Will She Change Minds?

With one black parent and one Japanese parent, Ariana Miyamoto is the first mixed-race beauty queen to represent Japan in the Miss Universe pageant. Toru Hanai/Reuters

The Japanese have a saying: "The nail that sticks out gets hammered in." It means that it's better to blend in than to stick out. For most Japanese, blending in is no trouble; the island nation of about 127 million is one of the most racially homogenous societies on the planet. According to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook, ethnic Japanese comprise 98.5 percent of the population. Ethnic Koreans and Chinese make up most of the other one-and-a-half percent. In rural areas especially, most Japanese will never meet someone who isn't Japanese.

So when you stick out in Japan, you really stick out. Beauty queen Ariana Miyamoto sticks out. Not because the 20-year old is tall, slender and blessed with immaculate cheekbones and a smile that seems genuine even when you know it can't be—these things, while nice, are not out of the ordinary for a model, which Miyamoto is.

Miyamoto sticks out because she is half black. The Japanese census does not collect information on race or ethnicity, so it is difficult to say exactly how many mixed-race people the country has, but they are relatively rare.

For a beauty queen, standing out is generally considered a good thing. Even the Japanese will admit to this. Even so, some were less than pleased when Miyamoto walked away with the crown in the Miss Japan pageant in March. Their complaint wasn't that she's not pretty enough—she certainly is—but rather that she's not Japanese enough.

"The representative of Nagasaki for Miss Universe Japan is really beautiful, but her face does not look like a representative of Japan," wrote one Twitter critic of Miyamoto.

"The face of Miss Universe Japan is obviously [that of] a foreigner!" griped another.

"I wasn't surprised by it," Miyamoto says of the reaction. "I was expecting it, actually."

"I wasn't surprised by it," Miyamoto says of some of the negative tweets about her after she was announced as the next Miss Universe Japan. JAPAN-BEAUTY/MULTIRACIAL REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Unlike some of her American counterparts, Miyamoto was never a toddler in a tiara. The first pageant she ever took part in was Miss Nagasaki 2015 in November, she said through a translator in a recent interview with Newsweek. That win qualified her to compete for Miss Japan 2015, which she also won. Next year, she will represent her homeland in Donald Trump's Miss Universe 2015 pageant in Miami.

In the Land of the Rising Sun, race and nationality are closely linked. Mixed-race people are referred to as hafu, and many of them say they are treated differently than "pure-blooded" Japanese.

Miyamoto, a 20-year-old model, is the daughter of a Japanese woman and a black man from the United States. Her father was in the military and was stationed at a Navy base in Sasebo, on the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu, when he met Miyamoto's mother. They divorced when Miyamoto was 1, and her father returned to the United States. As a child, she says, she remembers other children were hesitant to touch her for fear that her blackness might be contagious. Others refused to swim in the same pool with her.

Miyamoto says she decided to enter the world of beauty pageants when a friend of hers, also mixed-race, committed suicide—she believes as a direct result of the unique challenges faced by hafu in Japanese society.

The experiences of Miyamoto and her friend are common, says Megumi Nishikura, a filmmaker whose father is Japanese and whose mother is Irish-American, and whose recent film—titled Hafu—explores the lives of half-Japanese people. "In Japan I have the daily experience of having to prove that I'm Japanese," she tells me. "In the U.S. I don't have to do that, I don't have to prove that I'm American. It gets very tiring after a while."

In a society where belonging to the in-group is the basis of social harmony, mixed-race Japanese are routinely made to feel like outsiders, intentionally or not, she says.

Sofia, who is half-Japanese, half-Australian, stars in "Hafu," a film about the lives of half-Japanese people living in Japan. Hafu/Hafufilm.com

With mixed-race marriages still taboo in many places, hafu, while growing in number, remain rare, according to Nishikura. Rarer still are black hafu. Eric Robinson, who writes about his experience as an African-American living in Tokyo at the blog "Black Tokyo," says challenges faced by black people in Japan are different, but not necessarily tougher, than those faced by black Americans. "When I'm in Japan, I don't worry about being profiled," he says. "I don't worry about becoming a victim of gun violence. Those things don't enter my mind.

"But the Japanese sense of uniqueness is tough to overcome," he says. "Getting them to understand that Miyamoto is the new face of Japan is a very long process."

While many see Miyamoto's selection as proof that Japanese are becoming more tolerant of difference, others are more skeptical. Among them is Dr. Rebecca Chiyoko King O'Riain, a half-Japanese, half-Irish sociologist whose book Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Beauty Pageants examines how Japanese ideas about racial purity manifest in beauty pageants. "No doubt she's shifting attitudes," O'Riain says of Miyamoto. "I'm just not sure she's really shifting them that much. The other thing you have to remember is that she did not win Miss Universe Japan based on a public vote. This is a judging panel that's very small and very select."

O'Riain argues that Miyamoto's selection was less of a symbol that Japan is coming to terms with its racial hang-ups than a clever choice by the pageant organizers. "If you look at some of the past winners of Miss Universe, they're quite tall, they're quite Western-looking." And the more Western-looking a contestant is, she adds, the further they tend to get in the pageant.

Other than as a ploy to win beauty pageants, the Japanese don't seem eager to shed their reputation for standoffishness toward foreigners, whom they call gaijin, or anyone who doesn't read as "typically Japanese." Faced with a looming labor shortage caused by an aging population—a quarter of Japanese are over the age of 65—the Diet, or parliament, steadfastly refuses to throw open the gates to unskilled immigrant laborers to fill the gap. According to a recent poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun, a conservative Japanese newspaper, only 37 percent said the country should accept more foreign workers. The reason given is "social harmony"—foreigners and Japanese just can't get along, many Japanese still believe.

So now the Japanese face a choice: keep going they way they have been and risk becoming a non-player on the global stage as their economy continues to shrink, or get used to the sight of protruding nails and throw open the doors. Miyamoto hopes they'll do the latter.

Additional reporting by Satoko Kogure.